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The Healthy Skeptic: Nutritional Tips For High School Kids And Their Parents

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These days the demands of high school put a lot of pressure on kids, not the least of which affects their ability to eat properly. This is a plan that can help you to help your kids so that they can meet the challenges of their day and be at their best.

THE SCHEDULE PROBLEMS

As a high school coach I am totally aware that kids do not eat properly. Not only do kids make the wrong food choices most of the time, but the eating schedule that kids have – especially if they are involved in athletics or other after school activities – makes it harder for kids to eat well. And even if your kid isn’t involved in athletics, he or she is still growing and needs to eat properly.

I coach in a school where lunch for the high school starts as early as 10:30 in the morning. This early lunch hour – combined with an early start to the school day – makes it very tough for kids to eat enough and to eat the right foods. By the time an after-school activity, practice or game starts – which can be any time from 3:30 in the afternoon until 7:00 at night – kids can be starving…sometimes literally. After about 8 hours without food the body goes into starvation mode and starts breaking down muscle to use as fuel…this is bad.

This 8-hour period is very important to be aware of and is the main reason that everyone – not just your kid – needs to eat breakfast. If you eat dinner at 7:00 at night – and don’t have a snack before you turn in for the evening – you are technically in starvation mode before you wake up.

Remember, breakfast is not the first meal that you eat during the day but it’s the meal that you eat first thing after you wake up. Big difference.

HOW MUCH FOOD IS NEEDED?

So, do you know how many calories your active kid needs in a day? I’ll bet that you will be surprised when you find out.

You can use a basic formula of 18 calories per pound of kid. So if you have a 150-pound point guard, a 150-pound running back, a 150-softball pitcher or a 150-pound oboe player they need to get about 2700 calories every day. And to breakdown this total, you can go 60% carbohydrates (maximum) and 20% each of protein (minimum) and fat.

The reason for the example of the 150-pound athlete is that I’ve found that most kids who weigh more than this don’t eat 2700 calories in a day. Kids are shocked when I tell them how much food that they need to eat just to maintain their weight and to ensure that they have enough fuel to get through the day.

If you want to find out how much your kid is eating have them keep a detailed five-day food diary and record everything that they eat – including portion size - during the day. Actually, all they have to is let you know what they’ve eaten while they’ve been at school since you – as the parent – should be in charge of what they are getting at home. I guarantee you’ll be surprised as to how little your kids are eating.

Twenty-seven hundred calories is a lot of food to eat in a day and most teenagers – most people – will not be able to eat this much unless they start off the day by eating a decent breakfast. And the bigger the kid, the more calories they need to eat. I know that you can do the math, but a 200-pound kid needs approximately 3600 calories in a day…that’s a ton of good food to consume in a day. If you have a big kid who skips breakfast you’re guaranteeing that they will not get the calories that they need.

GOOD HABITS = GOOD EATING

When anybody asks me what they can do to eat better – or the specifics of what they should eat – I recommend that the focus be put on eating habits rather than the specifics of the foods to be eaten. Regardless of the field of endeavor, good habits provide good results, and eating is no exception.

Here is a simple list of eating habits that everyone should follow and a brief explanation for each.

1) No fast food. Does anyone really need an explanation for this one? I have a lot of patience. Really I do. But I have NO patience for people who insist on eating fast food or who claim not to know – or “get” – that fast food is bad for you. If you or your kids eat fast food with even the slightest regularity, the best thing that you can do is to stop immediately.
2) Don’t skip meals. Breakfast – first thing in the morning – lunch and dinner. That’s three meals per day, seven days per week. Always. Every day.
3) Include snacks during the day. Healthy snacks – not candy or garbage from vending machines – must be included in the daily diet. If your kid is involved in athletics an after-school/pre-practice/pre-competition snack is essential.
4) Bring food to school when necessary. Schools publish their menus for the week, so use this info to your advantage. On days when the school will serve foods that are bad or unappealing make a sandwich. Always bring some fruit.
5) Don’t eat anything that comes in a foil bag or wrapper. Chips, Doritos and other greasy, high in saturated fat, foods come in these kinds of bags. Processed baked goods are also in this category. These all serve as great examples of foods that provide “empty calories,” calories that don’t have any nutritional value. Stay away.
6) Limit sports drinks, soda and coffee drinks. Gatorade and all the rest of these drinks are good when used properly, but bad when they are used regularly. Sports drinks are another great example of a food that provides “empty calories,” but under the guise of being healthy. Save sports drinks for after a tough practice or a game played in extreme conditions. Soda no more than once or twice per week. The coffee pushers of the world have created a huge market demand among kids – your kids – and coffee isn’t the problem. The problem is the sugary add-ons that turn a cup of coffee into a caffeine milkshake. Stay away.
7) Drink plenty of water. Despite what the sports drink makers want you to believe, water is all that you need during all but the most extreme conditions. And don’t tell me that you don’t like the taste of water or give me any other nonsense. Drink it. Also, by drinking water instead of soda, sports drinks or processed fruit juices kids will cut way down on the consumption of the really bad sugars.
8) Make use of a high quality food bar. The generic term for these kinds of bars seems to be “power bar” or “protein bar.” Don’t mistake the brand “Power Bar” for a food bar. A food bar – I recommend the Clif Bar family of products – can serve as a healthy choice to provide your kid for breakfast on the go. I’m fully aware of that he best thing would be to have your kid sit at the breakfast table for a balanced breakfast, but that only happens in FANTASY LAND. So use this kind of bar to give your kid a healthy 240-or-so calories to start the day. These bars also serve as a great choice for snacks throughout the day. Make sure that whenever possible your kid eats food for meals – these bars aren’t meant to replace food – but given the very real likelihood that a kid will eat nothing for breakfast, providing these bars is certainly the preferable alternative.
9) Make use of a high-quality protein powder. There has been some controversy with regards to the use of protein powder, which is largely unfounded. Once again since we are operating in the real world where kids skip meals and/or eat garbage, a high-quality protein powder offers your kid a great alternative. Keep a few things in mind when considering these powders; more isn’t better, avoid powders with a lot of mysterious ingredients and make sure the serving size of protein is no more than 20-25 grams. A protein shake is a great “on-the-go food” and can be taken at breakfast or as a snack at school. A scoop of protein and a cup of milk will give your kid a healthy 250-calorie breakfast. Throw a banana in the mix and they’re good to go. And for school you can just put the powder in a Tupperware container so all they have to do is add milk and shake. If you piggyback the shake and a food bar you’re talking about 500 great calories that will go a long way towards helping your kid meet their daily requirement.
10) Don’t focus on body weight. This goes for losing weight and gaining weight. If kids are eating properly and are active, their weight will take care of itself. Too many people worry about the scale. For too many reasons to go into now, more harm than good will come from worrying about how much somebody weighs.

The focus on these habits will result in getting any kid – and any adult – to eat enough and to eat properly. Habits are the big picture that will take care of the details. Avoiding certain “bads” while creating “goods” – like not skipping meals and eating breakfast “first thing” – will do more for people of all ages than worrying about how many calories are in a bowl of pasta, a slice of bread or in a chicken breast. Getting hung up on the minutiae can make you lose sight of the big picture. People who go into a coffee shop and order the super-size skim latte with flavored syrup, whipped cream and three Equals are guilty of this.

Help your kids develop good eating habits as early in their development as possible, and you will give them something that they will have – and benefit from – for the rest of their lives.

Sal Marinello is a National Strength and Conditioning Association Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach and Certified Personal Trainer, a U.S.A. Weightlifting Certified Coach, a full-time, private Professional Strength and Conditioning Coach, an assistant football coach and a Head Strength Coach for a suburban New Jersey High School. He has no free time and writes a lot.

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About Sal Marinello